Saturday, December 25, 2010

This Week's Review -- December 24, 1977

For those readers who celebrate the holiday, I wish you a Merry Christmas. Since this blog doesn't take holidays, feel free to check out this week's post while you enjoy your day off. This is the 52nd entry of 2010 for this blog, and with one post a week, it just shows that I've been able to get this out consistently. I intend to keep it up for 2011, but please feel free let others know if you like this blog. I'd love to see more readers stop by here.

Only six new singles debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 this week, with two that would eventually break into the Top 40. The two Top 40 hits are pretty familiar to pop music fans of the day: one was the theme song from one of that year's more popular films and the other was a single from a group that was likely at the pinnacle of its overwhelming popularity. However, the ones that missed are somewhat familiar, too. One was a #1 country smash, another was a remake of a #5 hit from 1964, one was more of the same from an artist who once fronted Raspberries, and another was the one hit by a group whose name appeared a quarter-century later in a film.

Several past issues of Billboard are available over at the Google Books archive, including the December 24, 1977 edition. The full Hot 100 list can be found on Page 150. Since it's the special year-end double issue, the magazine features a lengthy recap of the year's top performers: singles, artists, labels, producers, etc...and in all the formats. Some big omissions appear among the "best of" lists, though, due to the publication's necessary cut-off date to prepare all of its yearly info. As a result of the cutoff date, "You Light Up My Life" (a song that had just spent 10 weeks on top of the singles chart) is missing, as is the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Instead, the #1 song of 1977 is listed as Rod Stewart's "Tonight's the Night," a song that is generally grouped in with 1976 singles by those of us who use a Jan.1-Dec. 31 timeframe. Despite those obvious omissions that were necessary to get the data out in time, it gives a nice big picture about the year that was.


Stillwater - "Mind Bender" Mind Bender - Southern Rock Gold

(Debuted #79, Peaked #46, 10 Weeks on chart)

Those who've seen the movie Almost Famous remember that the band William Miller followed on tour was called Stillwater. However, the band Miller's character followed was a fictitious amalgamation of real bands director Cameron Crowe covered as a Rolling Stone writer in the early 1970s. There was a real Stillwater, though, and they were a southern rock band from Warner-Robbins, Georgia.

"Mindbender" was a straight-ahead, guitar-based, blues-influenced rock tune. It featured a vocal fed through a guitar box (like on Peter Frampton's "Do You Feel Like I Do") that gave it a distinctive feel.

This was a second chance for "Mindbender"after a three-week run on the Hot 100 in November. This time, it would get farther up the chart and almost make the Top 40. Unfortunately, it would be the only song Stillwater would take into the Hot 100.

John Williams - "Theme From Close Encounters Of The Third Kind

(Debuted #81, Peaked #13, 14 Weeks on chart)

Like Star Wars, there was a chart battle between John Williams's original composition and a cover version by producer Meco Monardo. In 1977, Meco took a discofied version of the Star Wars theme to #1 while Williams -- fronting the London Symphony Orchestra -- stalled at #10. This time around, Meco's version (reviewed here nearly a year ago) lost the race.

One thing Williams brought to the song that Meco didn't was the authenticity gained from the fact he was the composer; the gimmicky electronic sound effects used in the cover weren't needed. Of course, Williams' version employs the five-tone signal that figures so prominently in the film. In fact, that five-note line is given several variations in the theme song. There is also a playful back-and-forth interaction in the bridge that has several instruments "communicating" with each other the way the humans and aliens did in the film with that signal.

In my opinion, the difference between John Williams' and Meco's versions are fairly wide, and the original versions were highly superior than the hastily remade, disco-laden covers. This time, the difference was recognized by the radio stations, the record-buying public and the charts.

ABBA - "The Name Of The Game" The Name of the Game - 20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of ABBA

(Debuted #82, Peaked #12, 16 Weeks on chart)

After a string of hit singles that were certain to cause insulin shock due to their high content of pop-flavored sugar and syrup, ABBA tried something a little different when they recorded "The Name of the Game." Trying to break the Europop mold they managed to perfect, the band's creative braintrust assimilated other sounds into their next album.

In the case of "The Name of the Game," the bass/synthesizer opening was inspired by Stevie Wonder's "I Wish" and the vocals were a little more multi-layered than what the band usually released. Unfortunately, when it came to listeners, ABBA's fans were more into the ear candy the group usually released than they were into maturity and the song wasn't quite the hit the group's earlier singles had been.

Released in advance of the LP ABBA: The Album, "The Name of the Game" would sputter out before hitting the Top 10 in the U.S. (though it was a #1 single across Europe). Undaunted, the group's next single would be "Take a Chance on Me," which was a return to the well-crafted pop songs that were than band's bread and butter and took them back into the Top 10.

Johnny Rivers - "Curious Mind" (Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #85, Peaked #41, 10 Weeks on chart)

After a string of decent hits in the 1960s and a moderate track record in the 70s, Johnny Rivers' last chart hit came in 1977 with "Curious Mind." Written by Curtis Mayfield and originally called "Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um," the song was a #5 hit in 1964 for Major Lance. The song was retitled when Johnny Rivers re-recorded it, though there isn't really anything to explain why. The words "curious mind" are only in the song in one place, while "um, um, um, um, um, um" make up the chorus and a very significant part of the song. Perhaps Rivers intended his version to stand on its own when he released it; however, his version is a lower-key remake of a fine 1960s Chicago soul song.

Ronnie Milsap - "What A Difference You've Made In My Life" What a Difference You've Made In My Life - The Essential Ronnie Milsap

(Debuted #87, Peaked #80, 5 Weeks on chart)

One of my favorite things about country music is the way the lyrics of some songs have double meanings. While many critics will unfairly dismiss the entire form as music for ignorant hillbillies, the people who make their living writing for that genre are often very salient and clever wordsmiths. In the case of "What a Difference You've Made in My Life," there person being appreciated can either be a woman, or more likely, it's a thinly veiled ode to a deity.

While the song never comes out and says so, the gospel-like performance Ronnie Milsap delivers toward the end and the female gospel chorus that backs him pretty much nails the point. The beginning of the song features two pianos. Milsap plays one, and the song's writer Archie Jordan plays the other. Despite its short stay in the Hot 100, "What a Difference You've Made in My Life" would be a #1 country hit. It was also sung by teenage singer Amy Grant on her first contemporary Christian album.

Milsap wasn't yet a solid crossover star (he would enjoy that status in the early 1980s), but this song helped push him in that direction.

Eric Carmen - "Boats Against The Current" Boats Against the Current - Boats Against the Current

(Debuted #90, Peaked #88, 3 Weeks on chart)

After beginning his post-Raspberries solo career with two Top 10 singles, Eric Carmen's subsequent singles failed to match the potential. "Boats Against the Current" -- the title song from Carmen's 1977 LP -- would be his first solo hit to miss the Top 40.

Employing more of the "adult" sound he featured in his solo material, "Boats Against the Current" was a slow song accented with strings, piano and emotional phrasing. In a way, it was a low-key continuation of "All By Myself" without the histrionic vocals or precisely-timed false ending. Or, trying to channel "Never Gonna Fall in Love Again" without the hopeful backing music to help ease the pain.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

This Week's Review -- December 16, 1972

What lacks in quantity is made up for in quality this week, as the seven new singles produced five Top 40 hits and three that made the Top 10. There is quite a variety of sounds in those few songs as well: A jazz-infused R&B song, a blues boogie, a rocker from an ex-Beatle, a rock song with a religious overtone, a song from a made-for-TV band, a pop tune and the final song for The Miracles while Smokey Robinson was still part of the group.

Several past issues of Billboard magazine can be read online at Google Books, including the December 16, 1972 edition. The full Hot 100 can be found on Page 59. There are a couple of pages missing near the front, but an article on Page 36 has a case of a bar realizing that having a TV on site was costing money. They even took the TV out to confirm the results. It's interesting to read, since looking at it today, there's little chance that any bar would consider removing their TVs from the premises.

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Marvin Gaye - "Trouble Man" Trouble Man (Single) - Every Great Motown Hit of Marvin Gaye

(Debuted #81, Peaked #7, 12 Weeks on chart)

After entering a new career phase with his What's Going On? LP, Marvin Gaye began handling some outside production duties for other artists as well as his own projects. Among those side projects was the film score for a "blaxploitation" movie, which were noticeable for using superstars like Isaac Hayes (Shaft) and Curtis Mayfield (Superfly). Called Trouble Man and starring Robert Hooks as a private investigator/loan shark known as "Mr. T," the movie was a failure, with its soundtrack being most of what has been remembered about it.

Some of Gaye's other projects at the time included a jazz album, an instrumental project and an aborted "socially aware" concept album called "You're the Man." All of these projects played into the score for Trouble Man: most of the songs were instrumentals, an element of ghetto reality was included in the sound, and jazz elements are evident in the title song in the vocal phrasing as well as the music.

Even though it was a title given to a film project, "Trouble Man" would have sad implications for Gaye later on, given his personal issues and tragic death.

The Partridge Family - "Looking Through The Eyes Of Love" Looking Through the Eyes of Love - Come On Get Happy! The Very Best of the Partridge Family

(Debuted #82, Peaked #39, 8 Weeks on chart)

A week before Christmas, what's better than a partridge? Had there also been a group called The Pear Tree, this could have been really interesting.

In keeping with the band's status as a TV entity, all the albums from The Partridge Family had some type of theme to them. "Looking Through the Eyes of Love" was taken from The Partridge Family Notebook, an LP that was designed to look like a piece of lined white paper used in schools. It followed other concepts like an "album" that was designed to look like a photo album, another that was modeled after the popular teen magazines, and another that was a shopping bag. They would come out with later albums having a crossword puzzle and a bulletin board, but neither of those produced any hits. "Looking Through the Eyes of Love" would be the band's final appearance in the Top 40.

"Looking Through the Eyes of Love" was written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and originally a hit for Gene Pitney in 1965. Like all Partridge Family songs, this is essentially a recording of David Cassidy with studio musicians and Shirley Jones as one of the backing voices. As such, it has quite a professional sound for a group that purported to be a family act employing a DIY philosophy.

Smokey Robinson and the Miracles - "I Can't Stand to See You Cry" I Can't Stand to See You Cry - Smokey Robinson and The Miracles: The 35th Anniversary Collection (Box Set)

(Debuted #89, Peaked #45, 8 Weeks on chart)

"I Can't Stand to See You Cry" was the final hit for the band as Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, since Robinson had left the group to concentrate on his duties as Vice President of Motown and the occasional solo recording. Smokey made a farewell appearance with the group at a concert in July 1972 and issued his last LP with them, called Flying High Together. For the final record, they even brought back early member (and Smokey's wife) Claudette Rogers Robinson for the project. Her voice is among the backing vocals in "I Can't Stand to See You Cry."

While not one of the better-remembered songs in the group's long list of hits, it's a lush ballad that features a string section and an arrangement well-suited for an early 1970s song. As always, The Funk Brothers (Motown's criminally overlooked house musicians) show that they are among the best in the business.

The Doobie Brothers - "Jesus Is Just Alright" Jesus Is Just Alright - Toulouse Street

(Debuted #97, Peaked #35, 11 Weeks on chart)

In previous blog entries, I've mentioned the phenomenon I call "God Rock" from the early 1970s.The sudden upswing in songs with a religious component came after the flirtation among may in the late 1960s with Eastern religion and philosophy, a well as a period marked by violence. In the case of "Jesus is Just Alright," the history stretches back a little farther.

Though most commonly associated with The Doobie Brothers, "Jesus is Just Alright" was a low-charting 1970 hit for The Byrds. Originally written by Art Reynolds in 1966, it was first released by his group, The Art Reynolds Singers. The Doobie Brothers began playing it onstage after hearing The Byrds' version because of its groove, not because of any epiphanies or spiritual beliefs held by members of the group. However, not many record buyers pay any attention to the original intentions, so the song likely benefited as much from the religious aspect as it did from the guitar sound.

There are two versions of the song. The album version from Toulouse Street is the one that is most familiar to listeners, as it's still played frequently on radio stations today. The single version edited down the bridge and guitar solo to better fit into Top 40 radio.

Edward Bear - "Last Song" Last Song - Lost Hits of the 70's

(Debuted #98, Peaked #3, 18 Weeks on chart)

 Edward Bear was the name of a Toronto-based band, not the name of a single person. Sometimes this causes confusion, because people looking for the band try to look under "B" instead of "E" where it belongs. Over the years, I have even received a couple of emails for the parent website of this blog, because somebody couldn't find Edward Bear in the "B" section (by the way, the name above is linked to the listing, so if you forget, you'll never need to worry, as it's there).

This is a song that has a distinct 1970's "sound," which may explain why it still gets played occasionally. A watery guitar line and brassy backing band punctuate a song where the narrator is about to give up on his love returning to him after two years of waiting. The horns seem contradictory, since they add an upbeat feel to the song, as if convincing yourself it's time to move on doesn't mean that you don't carry someone around in your heart from that point forward.

Fun trivia: Edward Bear is an early name for what became Winnie the Pooh.

Ten Years After - "Choo Choo Mama" Choo Choo Mama - Essential Ten Years After Collection

(Debuted #99, Peaked #89, 6 Weeks on chart)

Speaking of the origin of band names, Ten Years After was given its name in 1966. That was "Ten Years After" the 1956 breakout of Elvis Presley.

Ten Years After made a big impression with their performance of "I'm Going Home" in the Woodstock film, followed by a somewhat positive-looking single "I'd Love to Change the World" in 1971.  By 1972, the band's style of blues boogie was beginning to sound stale, and "Choo Choo Mama" -- yet another blues-based guitar boogie tune -- would be their final hit on the Hot 100. They recorded one more studio album and broke up in 1974. Later in the decade, leader Alvin Lee started a new group, which he named Ten Years Later.

Wings - "Hi, Hi, Hi" Hi Hi Hi - Wings Greatest

(Debuted #100, Peaked #10, 11 Weeks on chart)

The first three singles released by Paul McCartney & Wings were all non-album issues. "Hi, Hi, Hi" was the third of these.

Despite the way it's spelled, I'm guessing that when Sir Paul sings "were gonna get Hi, Hi, Hi," he's not really welcoming friends into his house. The song was banned by the BBC, not because of the thinly-veiled drug reference but because of some lyrics they claimed were sexually suggestive. In an interview, McCartney claimed they misheard the lyrics, but the fact that the song is a straight rocker suggests that there's some heavy petting going on anyhow.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

This Week's Review -- December 8, 1973

After the past few weeks with a long list of singles, this week's review allows me to take a little more time to write about each song. Only seven singles debut in the Billboard Hot 100 this week, with three making the Top 40 and one unlikely song getting into the Top 10. Among the artists are an R&B legend, a blues legend, a funk group that would become a huge crossover success in the 1980s, an English-born Canadian singer, a country "storyteller," a Cleveland-based power pop band and a new artist who never returned to the Hot 100 again.

Google Books has a large archive of past issues of Billboard online, including the December 8, 1973 edition. The full Hot 100 list can be found on Page 68. The article i found most interesting is one on Page 22 that explained how Boston-based Top 40 station WMEX figured out its hit list and a little bit about the way they figured their record rotation. As a former radio guy, I guess I'm just a sucker for those.

Wolfgang's Vault

Al Green - "Livin' For You" Livin' for You - Livin' for You

(Debuted #85, Peaked #19, 11 Weeks on chart)

In a surprising performance, Al Green performs the song live (not lip-synced) with his band on Soul Train in the clip above. That's different from most of the highlights seen from the show.

"Livin' For You" is rooted in the sound that sold a lot of Al Green records throughout the 1970s. His smooth vocal style is backed by Memphis-based horns and has a small added gospel feel to it. Written by Green with Willie Mitchell, it was his fourth #1 R&B song as well as a Top 20 pop hit.  

Keith Hampshire - "Big Time Operator" (Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #90, Peaked #81, 4 Weeks on chart)

This was the follow-up single to "The First Cut is the Deepest" for Keith Hampshire, a Canadian singer who was born in England. While singing "Big Time Operator," his voice resembles that of another English-born Canadian singer, David Clayton Thomas. Being backed by a horn section (a muted version of the one used by Blood, Sweat & Tears) probably doesn't ease that type of comparison.

The lyrics are full of names of occupations that rhyme with "operator," but end up explaining that he aspires to be a very rich man (a "big time operator"). Despite Hampshire's birthplace or country of citizenship, that certainly sounds like the American ideal put forth by Horatio Alger stories during the 1800s.

Don Goodwin - "This Is Your Song" (Not available on iTunes)

(Debuted #94, Peaked #86, 8 Weeks on chart)

Here's another video by YouTube DJ Music Mike, who seems to pop up often with his own videos of some of the harder-to-find songs I review. If you click through to read the comments, one of them is by a visitor claiming to be Goodwin's daughter. Eventually, that type of attention should find its way to this blog. I'd welcome the chance to add to what I know if that ever happens.

"This is Your Song" was written and produced by Paul Anka, who discovered Goodwin while in Las Vegas. Goodwin's daughter explained that Uncle Sam intervened before he could ever get out to support the few songs he recorded. Actually, she said he went to Vietnam, but the American ground troops were pretty much gone from that country late in 1973 (my own father came home from there early in '73, just months after I was born), but it's possible Goodwin got drafted before that was eventually stopped. In any case, she says he never even realized his song was a minor hit until he came home from the service (the details of which would have been great to insert into this entry). So if his daughter finds this entry, I'd love to get some more info.

"This Your Song" is a pure pop song, which isn't surprising given Anka's participation. However, it's a much better song than you might expect from somebody who never had a second chance to get on the chart. It certainly had the makings of a bigger hit, if only fate hadn't intervened.

Tom T. Hall - "I Love" I Love - The Definitive Collection: Tom T. Hall

(Debuted #97, Peaked #12, 16 Weeks on chart)

Tom T. Hall is known as "The Storyteller" because many of his songs sound like someone just sitting down and talking. Many of these were descriptions of regular events in life, but he also wrote songs about Army stories ("Salute to a Switchblade"), events from his childhood ("The Year Clayton Delaney Died") and stories from the road ("Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine"). As a songwriter, his biggest hit was Jeannie C. Riley's #1 hit "Harper Valley P.T.A." and the biggest single of his performing career started out as a list.

After being advised by a friend who happened to also be a psychiatrist to write out a list of things that are wrong. The reasoning was that lists like that tend to be short and but life into perspective. Hall thought that was a negative exercise, so he wrote down a list of the things he loved instead. As he wrote out the words, stuff like "little baby ducks," "fuzzy pups" and "bourbon in a glass," he realized he was falling back into his habit of writing a song. Within five minutes, his song was sketched out.

"I Love" would be a #1 country hit as well as the only pop Top 40 hit he managed to get. An unusual reaction was given by a network TV censor, who objected to the single word "grass" because it might condone marijuana use.

The Raspberries - "I'm A Rocker" I'm a Rocker - Greatest

(Debuted #98, Peaked #94, 3 Weeks on chart)

Sometimes, it's possible to read a label and figure out what is in the grooves. The title pretty much sets the tone for the song. While there are occasional exceptions, you won't expect a ballad or love song when you put on a single titled "I'm a Rocker." Eric Carmen doesn't disappoint. The song features guitars, drums and a bass to complement his usual hook-laden song.

At the time, The Raspberries' career was on a downward slide from the heights they reached with "Go All the Way" in 1972. After peaking at #94 with "I'm a Rocker," their next couple of singles failed to make the Hot 100 at all. They only managed a single hit after that, with their 1974 swan song, "Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)."

B.B. King - "I Like To Live The Love" I Like to Live the Love (Single Version) - Complete Collection

(Debuted #99, Peaked #28, 16 Weeks on chart)

Although he had long been a fixture in the "Chitlin' Circuit" as a blues artist and an influential and expressive singer and guitarist, B.B. King perhaps had his most successful -- if not exactly his best -- years in the early 1970s, beginning with "The Thrill is Gone." Though he had a few pop hits in the late 1960s, "Thrill" gave him the wider audience he couldn't have when he began performing in the 1940s due to the realities of the times. As it turned out, "I Like to Live the Love" would be King's final Top 40 pop hit.

"I Like to Live the Love" is more R&B than a blues song, with its Stax-style horns backing him up. The lyrics mention his songs (in fact, the line from the title is "I like to live the love that I sing about in my song") and comes across as a love letter to his music. However, some of the lines make comparisons between music and relationships.

Kool and the Gang - "Jungle Boogie" Jungle Boogie - The Very Best of Kool & the Gang

(Debuted #100, Peaked #4, 22 Weeks on chart)

"Jungle Boogie" is one of those songs that could have only been a hit during the 1970s. However, it's lasted through the years, not only in retrospectives but also in samples and the title sequence of the film Pulp Fiction. A wild and funky dancefloor song with gimmicky embellishments, this was the best-charting single the band had before revamping its sound later in the decade.

Beginning with a gong, the song features a brass section, a funk-driven rhythm and playful vocal interplay including a Tarzan-style yell at the very end. The gravel-voiced main vocal isn't done by a band member on the record; instead, the group's roadie Don Boyce provided that. 

Saturday, December 4, 2010

This Week's Review -- December 4, 1976

Eleven new songs appeared in Billboard Hot 100 this week. Five of them went on to reach the Top 40, and the one Top 10 single was a #1 smash. The lead single from an album Stevie Wonder took an eternity to record starts off the list, and a disposable pop tune by a cast member of Happy Days ends it. In between are a widely-known concert staple, an American debut for a future star, a guitar jam by a former member of Procol Harum, a song by an English band with a country feel and the final single a legendary Motown group would have on the survey. There are also lesser-known songs by Linda Ronstadt, Jefferson Starship and KC & the Sunshine Band.

Google has several past issues from Billboard available to read online, but the December 4, 1976 edition has a problem. The full Hot 100 list is supposed to be on Page 60, but seems to be missing from the scan. Page 3 has an article mentioning that the National Association of Broadcasters was becoming concerned about an increasing number of drug and sex references in popular music (which would probably have been no news at all for many of the people actually listening to radio stations for the previous several years). Another Page 3 article has the details of 10cc's split. An article on Page 34 has a story about how England Dan & John Ford Coley became "overnight" sensations after 12 years and three record labels. Finally, a short paragraph mentions that Jerry Reed was busy doing a song for a movie he was making called Smokey & the Bandit.


Stevie Wonder - "I Wish" I Wish (Single Edit) - Number 1's

(Debuted #40, Peaked #1, 17 Weeks on chart)

Songs in the Key of Life was an LP that was two and a half years in the making, at a time when artists didn't normally take long getting material out unless thay wanted to be forgotten by the listening public. Fortunately, once the album arrived it was quickly regarded as a classic. At two records (plus a "bonus" EP included in the package), it was certainly ambitious. But there were many double records at that time that were overblown and plodded on too long. Once the album was finally being played on turntables and singles started hitting the radio airwaves, it was obvious that Wonder had definitely spent his time wisely in putting together such a statement.

The first of the singles culled from Songs in the Key of Life was "I Wish," a funk-driven tune that featured a walking bass line, sharp electric keyboard fingerwork, unique vocal phrasing and a breakdown at the end. While it is definitely a 1970s tune, it's aged very well over the years. Like James Brown, Sly Stone and George Clinton, Wonder took a funky vibe and forged it into a genuine groove. It appeared years later, as a basis for Will Smith's 1999 hit "Wild Wild West" and even made a minor appearance in the 2006 animated film Happy Feet.

I also get a kick out of the line in the song that mentions his attempts to keep Mama from whooping his behind. That's something that doesn't seem to get mentioned in popular culture nowadays.

Linda Ronstadt - "Someone To Lay Down Beside Me" Someone to Lay Down Beside Me - Hasten Down the Wind

(Debuted #78, Peaked #42, 11 Weeks on chart)

Linda Ronstadt's 1970s output was marked by a long string of songs from the past she remade. By 1976, she had already released songs like "Heat Wave," When Will I Be Loved," "It's So Easy" and "That'll Be the Day" as singles, with several more to come in the future. A person looking through her singles may be surprised to come across this one.

"Someone to Lay Down Beside Me" was one of three songs written by Karla Bonoff for Ronstadt's Hasten Down the Wind LP. Opening with a piano solo that likely inspired Tori Amos, there's little to the song instrumentally besides a piano and muted strings until Ronstadt begins the chorus. At that point, the full band and a group of backing singers (which sound almost like overdubbed harmonies of Ronstadt herself) jumps in. The song is a little slower than her hit material, but showcases her vocal talent quite nicely.

Jefferson Starship - "St. Charles" St. Charles - Gold

(Debuted #81, Peaked #66, 5 Weeks on chart)

This is interesting. I started writing this review blog more than a year ago. Over the past sixteen months, I've listened to a wide variety of music from the decade and had figured I'd hit at least every major act at least once since I got started. However, I haven't reviewed a single Jefferson Starship (or Airplane, for that matter) song until now. That's probably not going to happen too often from here on out.

Even better, it's a song from the group I'm not familiar with. Growing up in the 1980s, I was reminded by those older than me that the band that called itself Starship had been a group called Jefferson Airplane and that they had a much different sound back then. Jefferson Starship represented the transition between the band's psycvhedelic sound of the 1960s and the corporate synth-pop they used in the 1980s, but for some reason, their 1970s work as Jefferson Starship has been boiled down to just a handful of songs ("Miracles," "Jane," maybe "With Your Love" and "Count On Me").

"Transition" is a good way to describe the sound of "St. Charles." There are pieces of the group's Airplane lineup (Paul Kantner, Grace Slick and Marty Balin are here) and some of the vocal harmonies recall the group's Volunteers-era songs. However, Craig Chacquico's guitar solo shows some of the difference from the sound Jorma Kaukonen had provided with the old lineup. All the band needed was to hire Mickey Thomas as a singer and turn to pop-based songs.

K.C. and the Sunshine Band - "I Like to Do it" I Like To Do It (Single/LP Version) - KC & The Sunshine Band: 25th Anniversary Collection

(Debuted #82, Peaked #37, 12 Weeks on chart)

There really isn't a lot to say about the sound KC & the Sunshine band use for this song. It's very familiar to what they had been releasing since 1973.

The lyrics are ostensibly about dancing, but it doesn't take a lot of deep thought to get an alternate meaning for the oft-repeated line "I like to do it with you." The verses mention "boogie down, all night long," and "shake you up, shake you down" and even "I want you to be my one and only," none of which are enough to lead me to believe the song is actually about dancing at all. But anybody who tries to say that about a band that had already done "Get Down Tonight," "That's the Way (I Like it)" or "Shake Your Booty" really didn't get the point from those earlier hits.

That said, the idea of going out dancing was a means to do the other thing afterward. Why not put both in the same song?

Lynyrd Skynyrd - "Free Bird" Free Bird (Live) - One More from the Road (Deluxe Edition) [Live]

(Debuted #83, Peaked #38, 8 Weeks on chart)

Lynyrd Skynyrd had already taken the studio version of "Free Bird" into the Top 40 back in 1974. Over the years, however, it became a concert staple for them due to its triple guitar solos. It became the band's signature song and the go-to song for their concert finales. When the band released their live album One More From the Road in 1976, "Free Bird" closed out the double-record set with nearly fifteen glorious minutes devoted to the song. Some Skynyrd fans insist the live version was better than the one recorded in the studio, not only because of the concert atmosphere but because this version featured guitarist Steve Gaines, who hadn't yet joined the band for the original.

Interestingly, the "live" version has an embellishment on it. Allen Collins went back to the studio and added guitar parts for the live LP that weren't actually used in the show. However, live albums frequently contain studio fixes for things like broken strings and bad microphones that degrade the sound quality. Many major live LPs have them -- from Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison to Stop Making Sense by the Talking Heads, so why not a Skynyrd album as well?

The single version of "Free Bird" cut a lot of the instrumental play out of the song, but the album cut gets a lot of radio play since it allows the jock to grab a smoke or stop in what we called "Studio C" during my days as a radio DJ.
(The iTunes link above is the long version on One More From the Road. Amazon doesn't feature that LP, so it's from the group's box set).

Smokie - "Living Next Door To Alice" Living Next Door to Alice - The Best of Smokie

(Debuted #84, Peaked #25, 20 Weeks on chart)

In 1977, I was really young. My first opinion of this song wouldn't come until several years later. By that time, the under-exposed  film roll that developed my memories immediately thought of two things when I saw the title: Buford T. Justice (from Smokey & the Bandit) and the waitress/title character from the show Alice. I was wrong on both counts. When I got around to hearing the song and catching the story within the grooves, I forgot about both of those.

The story behind the song has the narrator feeling depressed to learn that the girl next door is moving away. He's long pined for her since they were kids, but in the twenty-four years they've been neighbors he never found a way to tell her how he felt. But, as the song ends, his friend Sally confesses she's been watching him the same way all along.

While the story is in many ways like the TV show episodes that wrap themselves up nicely in 30 minutes, Chris Norman's voice still ends the song with the lament that Alice is really gone. Smokie was a British band, but the song would have made a great country song. The story within the song, the acoustic guitar that opens it, even the steady rhythm all sound like they were picked up from country music. (I just looked...yes, Johnny Carver recorded a version in 1977 that went into the Country Top 40).

Robert Palmer - "Man Smart, Woman Smarter" Man Smart (Woman Smarter) - Some People Can Do What They Like

(Debuted #89, Peaked #63, 7 Weeks on chart)

Perhaps best known today for his 1980s videos, with models swaying behind him and holding instruments they didn't know how to play, it's largely forgotten how effortlessly Robert Palmer could go from one style to another.  From rockers like "Bad Case of Loving You" to New Wave tunes like "Johnny and Mary" to soul ballads like "Early in the Morning," his work is a wide variety of styles and influences. New Orleans-based rock, funk, synth-pop, Caribbean rhythm, bossa nova, soul, blues...Palmer covered them all in his body of work. However, the visual revolution that was the 1980s cemented a reputation as a sharp-dressed lounge lizard, which is unfortunate.

His first American hit, was "Man Smart, Woman Smarter," a song that blended reggae with a pop phrasing. It even featured a steel drum along with the driving guitar, which was unusual for pop in the mid-1970s. As the title suggests, the song is yet another way of rephrasing the old saying that behind every successful man, there is a woman making him that way.

Gene Cotton - "You've Got Me Runnin'" (Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #90, Peaked #33, 11 Weeks on chart)

Gene Cotton is largely forgotten today, but was able to get a few songs into the Top 40 during the 1970s before disappearing. "You've Got me Runnin'" was his first Top 40 hit and was a solid pop tune that sounded like it could have been a hit later for somebody like Christopher Cross or Joey Scarbury during the early 1980s.

Back in September, I reviewed Cotton's song "Like a Sunday in Salem (The Amos And Andy Song)" and wasn't overwhelmed by it. However, "You've Got Me Runnin'" is a better song, with a better sound to it. Perhaps that's because I'm not thinking "what the hell is this song about?" when I'm listening to it.

The Supremes - "You're My Driving Wheel" You're My Driving Wheel - The Supremes: The '70s Anthology

(Debuted #93, Peaked #85, 5 Weeks on chart)

Time managed to do what the loss of Diana Ross and the increasing apathy of Motown couldn't manage to do: "You're My Driving Wheel" would be the final pop single of a long and successful chart career for The Supremes. Despite a fan base that insisted the trio's sound had gotten better after Ross went solo, their record sales had dropped off and their hits were drying up. 

By 1976, the Supremes consisted of Mary Wilson (the only member left from the "classic" group lineup of the 1960s), Scherrie Payne and Susaye Greene. Payne takes the lead on "You're My Driving Wheel," with Wilson and Greene handling backup. With a basic dance beat added, it would go on to chart but didn't get far up the Hot 100. It was the first of three singles from their LP Mary, Scherrie & Susaye; the second charted on the R&B and disco surveys, the final single was only released in the U.K. Shortly after that, the group split up.

Robin Trower - "Caledonia" Caledonia - A Tale Untold: The Chrysalis Years (1973-1976) [Remastered]

(Debuted #98, Peaked #82, 7 Weeks on chart)

Though "Caledonia" shows as Robin Trower's only hit on the Hot 100, it's unfair to call him a one-hit wonder since he was the lead guitarist of Procol Harum. For people whose knowledge of Procol Harum's sound doesn't extend far beyond "A Whiter Shade of Pale" or perhaps "Conquistador" thanks to the influence of Oldies radio, this song may come as a bit of a surprise. It's a guitar-based tune that has a definite Jimi Hendrix influence to it.

Trower gives his Stratocaster quite a workout on the solo parts. Otherwise, it's a straightforward rock tune, just the way a rock song should be. No power pop, no catchy hooks to be heard, just a guy showing his considerable skill on his instrument, with a rhythm section keeping the time for him.

Donny Most - "All Roads (Lead Back To You)" (Not Available on iTunes)

(Debuted #100, Peaked #97, 3 Weeks on chart)

Yes, this is the same Donny Most who spent several years playing Ralph Malph on Happy Days. Like fellow castmate Anson Williams (who played Potsie), Most recorded an album and notched a single hit record. Considering fellow members of the fictional Milwaukee-based sitcom world Laverne & Shirley also reached the Hot 100, it's probably certain that Ron Howard, Henry Winkler and Scott Baio would have followed with records of their own if they desired. Beyond the cast members themselves, there was a Hot 100 listing for a group of Fonz fans (The Hey-ettes), the title song by Pratt & McLain was a Top 10 hit, and there was even a revival of the show's original theme song ""Rock Around the Clock."

This song wasn't driven by 50's-era nostalgia, though, and Most doesn't try to sing it as his character. For a song cut by an actor, this really isn't surprising. However, knowing that Donny Most was the person behind Ralph Malph, I'm listening to the song expecting him to somehow pull a practical joke. I suppose it's good that he didn't give up his day gig.